October has become a month of celebration for Protestantism since that fateful day in 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses to the church door. Reformation day services and celebrations are wonderful ways to reflect on the historical events and figures that have impacted how we articulate and confess our faith.
But today, in the midst of remembering the heroic acts of Martin Luther and his fellow reformers, I want to turn to one of the darker points in the history of Protestantism.
It is impossible to deny that the Protestant Reformation rocked the European world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Religious warfare took the lives of thousands, if not millions, as the continent’s political powers negotiated the ramifications of the newly fractured Christian church. The kingdom of France quickly developed as an epicenter for confessional violence, and Protestantism became illegal by King Louis XIV’s Edict of Fontainebleau, which was issued on October 22, 1685.
France: From the Reformation to the Edict
The Edict of Fontainebleau represented a significant blow upon a series of bruises for French Protestants or Huguenots. They had never received much of a break from the French Catholic regime. Unlike the German lands and later England, France’s political and social context was never hospitable to reformational ideas.
Famed French reformers such as Theodore Beza and John Calvin found safer havens among the Swiss cantons than in their homeland, ruled by kings Francis I (r. 1515-1547) and later his more intensely Catholic son, Henry II (r. 1547-1559). While the Holy Roman Empire took a collective, if temporary, sigh of relief in 1555 with the Peace of Augsburg that resolved religious conflict in German-speaking lands, France was gearing up for its first of several decades-long wars in the early modern period.
The French Wars of Religion broke out in 1562 and came to a formal end in 1598 when the Protestant King Henry IV issued the Edict of Nantes that granted the Huguenots a limited scope of religious freedom. Historian Owen Stanwood notes that this bill of rights was more legal formality than practical reality for Huguenots. It prohibited the construction of new churches and restricted their ability to expand by confining them to their existing regions of France.
Furthermore, the Edict of Nantes ultimately failed in its ability to prevent Catholic and Protestant conflict. The sheer dominance of French Catholicism remained a powerful force in the kingdom, eventually resulting in the assassination of King Henry IV. Henry IV’s assassination gave way for the reign of Louis XIII. He, under the advisement of Cardinal Richelieu, pursued an absolute monarchy that quashed Huguenot’s rebellion.
Shortly after Louis XIII’s ascension, the Thirty Years’ War broke out and would ravage continental Europe until 1648. However, this bloody war did not hamper Huguenot persecution at home, as the Cardinal found time to attack unruly Protestants in sieges, most notably at the Protestant stronghold of La Rochelle.
The Huguenot Diaspora
In the years leading up to the Edict of Fontainebleau, King Louis XIV unleashed dragonnades on Protestant regions. In pursuit of doctrinal unity, Louis XIV ordered soldiers to occupy Protestant territory, often literally quartering in French homes to harass Protestants financially and physically into converting.
Persecution continued to build under Louis XIV from the 1650s, coming to a crescendo in the Edict of Fontainebleau of 1685 that we commemorate today. Fontainebleau all but formalized the decades of Huguenot persecution that had become the status quo in France.
Fontainebleau’s twelve articles were remarkably comprehensive in their pursuit of quashing reformed worship. First and foremost, Protestants at all levels of society could not gather to worship, and ––to underline this article –– any Protestant church buildings that remained were to be destroyed. Relatedly, Protestant schools closed, and all children were required to be baptized and educated by Roman Catholics.
The most innovative aspect of Fontainebleau was the prohibition of migration. Any member of a Protestant church was barred from leaving the kingdom. If he was caught in the act, he went to the galleys for hard labor. If he was successful in his escape, he inadvertently relinquished any remaining property to the government. Naturally, this put a strain on Huguenots hoping to leave for friendlier places. Throughout the 1680s, the 800,000 Huguenot would dwindle into the mere thousands, with the majority converting to Catholicism in some sense (the legitimacy of which was often specious) and 150,000 migrating.
Ministers had an easier time, for they were given two weeks after the edict’s proclamation to leave. After that, the options were to convert or go to the galleys. Between the proverbial rock and a hard place, it is unsurprising that 75% of Protestant ministers fled.
For the French, Protestant worship would not be legal until the eve of the French Revolution when King Louis XVI issued the Edict of Toleration of 1787. Like the Edict of Nantes, Protestants hardly gained full acceptance in France. Still, something was better than nothing, and many Protestants were delighted to legitimate the marriages, births, and deaths that had gone unrecorded in their homeland for so long.
A Tenuous Protestant Alliance in the Face of Persecution
The Huguenot diaspora accepted the outstretched hands of charity from Protestant friends everywhere, from the Netherlands to the British colonies in the Americas. Although Protestant persecution occurred in many places, the Huguenots “stood at the emotional center of European geopolitics…[gaining] friends around Europe and beyond.”
While the French stood at the emotional center of European politics, England was quickly taking its place as the center of power of the Protestant world. As part of its role as Protestant protector, England extended a warm welcome to their persecuted French brethren, ultimately accepting the majority of the total refugees. England had already been a favored refuge for Huguenots; ten thousand fled there in the decades leading up to the Fontainebleau. Following Fontainebleau’s passing, some fifty thousand Frenchmen would cross the channel.
The Huguenot diaspora also played a significant role in altering the posture of New England Congregationalists toward the broader Protestant world. Long chided for supposed sectarianism, Puritans were eager to offer their financial and spiritual assistance to their persecuted brethren. The Prussians, already desperate to repopulate their decimated lands, issued a formal edict of their own to house French refugees. Eighteen thousand accepted the elector’s invitation. The Netherlands, friendly to French Calvinist sympathies, took in fifteen thousand. The Swiss took in their share, though extenuating economic and political difficulties shortened the stay for many.
This rallying cry from France brought together strange bedfellows. The catalyzing charitable mission would be a part of a series of events that united Protestants, for one thing – against Catholics, but more positively, in favor of allying in the larger goal of aiding the poor and the persecuted. When Protestants in Salzburg faced a similar edict of expulsion issued on Reformation Day in 1731, many of these same groups rose to their aid.
Throughout the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth, Anglicans, Presbyterians, and Lutherans would work together on the mission field, at home, and abroad. Political, economic, and confessional differences naturally came to the fore and prevented full integration, but a shared mission to serve a close neighbor in need united these Protestant groups. On this day, in this season of Protestant celebration, this unity is beautiful to consider –– especially against the backdrop of Huguenot persecution that was formalized in France on this day in 1685.